The name Dyson is as synonymous with good design as Apple is, with its founder, James Dyson, cleverly focusing on household appliances such as vacuum cleaners and hair dryers, whose quality is so good that customers do not mind paying top dollar for them. In his book Invention: A Life, publishing next week, Dyson, 74, explains not just how he built his empire but how his life is as much about failure as it is about success—and why that makes him happy.
JIM KELLY: It took you four years and 5,127 handmade prototypes of your famous cyclonic vacuum before you hit on the right model. What was the difference between prototype 5,126 and 5,127?
JAMES DYSON: When you are experimenting and developing a product, it is important that you only change one factor at a time—by doing that you can isolate the changes that have the biggest impact on performance. It requires a lot of patience, but it is the only way to do it.
J.K.: Once you reached that eureka moment, you say you felt “strangely deflated.” Why?
J.D.: The point is, there is no flash of brilliance and shout of “eureka.” It is a tortuously slow process defined by small, iterative changes and multiple failures. It was a great relief to have finished the development, but it didn’t feel like a huge moment of elation. Besides, there was much to do—not least of all, manufacture and sell the product!
J.K.: You attended the Royal College of Art, graduating with a degree in industrial design. You had no training as an engineer. How did you become so good at creating new technologies?
J.D.: I learn best through my own experiences, by doing and failing along the way. I’ve also been very fortunate to have mentors and engineering heroes who have inspired me.
It was [the British inventor] Jeremy Fry who put his faith in me as a young design-school graduate, giving me the responsibility for designing and developing the Sea Truck [a high-speed fiberglass watercraft invented in the 70s to land vehicles without relying on things like jetties]. He also gave me responsibility for marketing, exporting, and selling it around the world, none of which I had any experience in whatsoever—but I learned on the job.
The important thing wasn’t being a designer, an engineer, or even a salesman, so much as knowing every single detail of the product, the problems it solved, and how it might be useful to someone. I think that personal experience and understanding gives authenticity and ensures products are the best they can be. That is why Dyson has engineering teams all around the world, solving problems in different ways, drawing on local expertise. We then explain to people why we have solved the problems in the way we have.
J.K.: Growing up in Norfolk, you attended Gresham’s, a school where your father was head of the classics department. It is the same school where W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, and Sir Christopher Cockerell, who invented the hovercraft, studied. How important was your dad and that obviously extraordinary school in shaping your entrepreneurial spirit?
J.D.: My childhood had a huge influence on me. Being the youngest of three siblings, I suppose, made me plucky and forthright, and losing my father at a young age necessitated independence of spirit and self-reliance.
Growing up in rural north Norfolk was an uncomplicated and basic upbringing—we grew our own vegetables, we made our own entertainment, and I spent many hours running through the sand dunes with only my thoughts. I was extremely lucky to be offered free education at enlightened Gresham’s. I was the son of the head of classics there, my brother was a classics scholar, and it was taken for granted that I too would study classics.
As my older sister and brother were academically highly successful, my rebellious instinct was to follow a different path of my own. This was probably the start of my entrepreneurial spirit, further nurtured during my years in London at the Royal College of Art, where David Hockney, Ossie Clark, and Ridley Scott had just graduated. It felt, in postwar Britain, that anything was possible. These were very exciting times.
J.K.: After your hard-won success with Dyson vacuum cleaners, in which you managed to persuade folks to pay a premium for a high-quality product, you turned to a host of small, motor-driven products such as fans and hair dryers that also were big hits. You are also quite candid about having to scrap your electric car after a huge investment. Any regrets?
J.D.: We have always focused on using technology to make better products. Radically different products normally require fundamental new technologies in order to work, such as high-speed electric motors, new-technology batteries, or vision systems for robotics. The research and development that goes into making these technologies is expensive, risky, and time-consuming, but it leads to leaps in performance, which is something that people value all around the world.
The point about taking risks on new technologies and new products is that some—many—of those risks end in failure. Sometimes it’s not because the product is wrong or bad. It can simply be the commercial reality in which you are launching it that leads to its demise.
The Dyson car is a good example of this. It was a fantastic car, full of new technologies and radical redesigns, but the financials simply didn’t stack up. I don’t regret the investment, as I’m sure that it will pay itself back many times over through the wonderful people who joined Dyson as a result and the innovations that the car catalyzes. It was, however, a huge disappointment to those who spent so many long days, over years, creating a product of which they were so proud. I felt very bad for them.
The commercial reality following Dieselgate [the Volkswagen emissions scandal] and the resulting pivot of automotive manufacturers towards electric vehicles meant that our car would not have survived. As a new automotive manufacturer, we were paying many times that of our competitors for components, and traditional automotive manufacturers were offsetting the emissions from the petrol and diesel cars through the electric cars that they would sell, so we had no chance of competing. I simply could not blindly risk the whole business in pursuit of the car.
J.K.: You are very much the public face of your company, and you have done it with a brilliant showmanship that even Steve Jobs would admire. How did you decide that that would be the best way to sell your products?
J.D.: I don’t want anyone to buy our products because of slick advertising or showmanship—I want them to buy them because they perform better. I believe in simply explaining the technology, how it works, and how it can help people. By doing this we can show people how the technology can improve their lives and why we have spent years developing it.
I never envisaged fronting the adverts myself, but I was persuaded to do so by our U.S. team. I actually think that engineers are the best people to explain the product, as they know the benefits of the product, for they are the ones who have spent many years painstakingly developing them.
J.K.: You are passionate about encouraging young people to get into the business of inventing solutions, so much so that with the help of the British government you established the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology. How might these graduates address what is arguably our greatest challenge: climate change?
J.D.: I am a very optimistic person. I believe that engineers and scientists can solve the world’s biggest problems and that young people have a unique perspective on those problems, as well as the motivation to solve them. Sadly there are not enough engineers in the world!
The Dyson Institute is our way of trying to address the shortage of engineers that the U.K. suffers from so acutely. Dyson undergraduates study for a degree and work on real-world projects from day one, alongside the best scientists and engineers in the world. Learning by doing is a most effective way to learn.
The thing that I find so remarkable about young people is their ability to tackle complex problems in new and inventive ways. That is why I have always hired so many graduates. It is graduates that have driven Dyson forward from day one, and they will continue to. Rather than complain about problems, let’s inspire engineers to get on and solve them.
J.K.: As a famous inventor yourself, is there an inventor you have found especially inspiring?
J.D.: I think it is important to have heroes, and I am certainly inspired by those who have pioneered advances against the odds. Frank Whittle, who invented the jet engine, is probably my biggest inspiration. The genius of Whittle was his vision and engineering judgement. That meant that he usually got it right the first time. Very few people can do that, but he was one of them. The jet engine is remarkable. Unlike the 12,000 moving parts of the piston engines it replaced, it has just one, yet it achieves an absolutely stunning force of air—enough to propel an aircraft! It is no exaggeration to say that his invention changed the course of the war and travel forever.
The lesson in Whittle’s story is that you should never rely on others to see the potential of your idea. His genius was ignored by the Air Ministry at the time, and his invention failed to garner support, to the extent that the patent lapsed. This shows the fragility of ideas, and the need to have belief and self-reliance and determination to see an idea to reality.
We actually have the oldest working jet engine at our campus, in Malmesbury. It has been painstakingly restored by Dyson engineers to the original specification, and we fire it up in the car park, which is a very exciting spectacle. It is now an antique, but it works brilliantly!
Invention: A Life, by James Dyson, will be published by Simon & Schuster on September 7
Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for Air Mail